Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet
A dozen remixes (2006) of Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981)
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In early 2006, musicians Brian Eno and David Byrne together took two different routes in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, their 1981 album that mixed found sounds and cut'n'paste techniques into arty, often danceable pop concoctions.
The first was standard procedure: they remastered the original album and reissued it on CD with bonus tracks, plus liner notes that made the historical case for the album's groundbreaking approach to sampling.
The second was more open-ended: Eno and Byrne uploaded to a website, bush-of-ghosts.com/remix, the constituent parts of two tracks off My Life in the Bush of Ghosts: "Help Me Somebody," a pulsating bit of ersatz African juju, and "A Secret Life," a more languorous stretch of elegiac atmospherics. The website, launched on March 8, 2006, invited fans to upload their own versions of the material, and upload they did, almost 200 renditions of the two songs in the site's first six months.
If the bonus matter on the reissued CD provided a glimpse into the album's unusual recording process, the remix website opened the door to the studio and welcomed listeners in to participate.
The use of remixes for promotional purposes is far from unprecedented, but it has a certain trenchant quality in regard to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. When the album came out in 1981, it had already been several years in the making. Its backing musicians included the cream of the avant-rock world, such as bassists Busta Jones and Bill Laswell, percussionist David van Tieghem and drummer Chris Frantz (fellow member, with Byrne, of the band Talking Heads). More importantly, the vocals on the record's 11 tracks were provided by a host of unwitting accompanists in the form, then a fairly radical concept, of samples, notably exotically non-Western ethnological documentation and inherently Western evangelists.
And more importantly still, the live and tape elements on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts meshed seamlessly, because Eno and Byrne chopped them all up in the process of producing the album. Well, "seamlessly" isn't the correct word in this case. The elements meshed "seamfully," given that the duo's conceptual artifice was essential to the music's flavor: multi-cultural to the point of kaleidoscopic, disinterested in narrative but packed with observations, the cacophony lending unfamiliar vibrancy to the rhythms.
Now, 25 years later, everything from hip-hop to mashups to Internet culture has made sampling a fact of daily life. Mass-market personal computers arrive preloaded with software that essentially allows anyone to make his or her own Bush of Ghosts. And thus, to commemorate the album's re-release, Eno and Byrne turned their own music from subject to object, from composition to compost, from sampler to sampled.
For Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet, I contacted a dozen musicians whose work I admire; I wanted to hear what their renditions of the Eno and Byrne tracks might sound like, and none of them had yet joined in the activities at the bush-of-ghosts.com website. With only a few exceptions, these individuals already participate regularly in the loose community of musicians who post their own music for free download on the web, via netlabels, social networking services or their own websites.
The 12 graciously agreed to participate in this project and the resulting compilation ranges from tributes to reconsiderations, from distant reflections to associative interpretations. There are takes on "Help Me Somebody" that milk the funk in the preacher's voice and there are takes on "A Secret Life" so quiet as to make the original sound like rock'n'roll by comparison.
As sequenced here, Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet opens with an entry, by AllThatFall, resembling what My Life in the Bush of Ghosts might have sounded like had it been created for the first time in 2006. It builds on our experience, as listeners, with music sewn from samples; what was once innovative to the point of confusion is now commonplace - the esoteric quality of the original's haphazard construction has given way to music, like AllThatFall's, that is comforting for all its ramshackle, jittery energy.
Several other contributions to this project likewise reflect the joyousness of the original. MrBiggs' track burbles with tiny effects that suggest the influence of hip-hop, a then-young genre that was toying with sample-based music coincident with Eno and Byrne's late-1970s studio efforts. It also has a pure-pop melody that is entirely MrBiggs' own.
Prehab's rendition, like AllThatFall's, is very much what My Life in the Bush of Ghosts might have been like were the album first produced in 2006, not so much because of its timbre but because of its politics. With its sound-bite quotes from President George W. Bush, it also serves as something of a correction to the reissue. The 2006 CD excluded a track, "Qu'ran," included on the original album, which used chanted bits of the sacred Muslim book. (In an feat of editing worthy of a Milan Kundera short story, the reissue doesn't even mention the absence of "Qu'ran.")
Ego Response Technician tweaks the original fairly beyond the realm of recognition, pushing it onto the dance floor, while Roddy Schrock strikes out across the rhythmic territory of the source material, but with an ear for its minimalist tendencies.
Pocka and doogie separately find a tension between rhythm and texture. Both hint at something that might suddenly gain momentum, but revel instead in the available sounds.
Like Ego Response Technician's, the pieces by Mark Rushton and My Fun are far enough removed from the original album to constitute something entirely their own, something with narrative intent. What's interesting is how their use of field recordings touches on the chance rhythmic occurrences in the original, which most of the other tracks don't necessarily have to their credit, due to the way that digitally mediated sampling today routinely incurs metronomic precision.
At the more atmospheric end of the continuum, several musicians aim for a spaciousness that My Life in the Bush of Ghosts only hinted at. Stephane Leonard unearths a formidable drone before violently exploding it, (dj) morsanek mixes in additional musical sources for a track whose detail-oriented effort is masked by its continuity of tone, and john kannenberg emphasizes a level of quietude that Eno and Byrne, in their pre-digital studio, likely hadn't dreamed of.
These dozen tracks represent the individual musicians' various journeys through the bush of ghosts.
PS: In addition to the dozen MP3 files, this release includes a document with information from each of the contributors about their tracks, plus a "front" and "back" cover.